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Monday, April 25, 2022

Response to Tom Hartsfield's Big Think Article, "Searching for Planet 9"



This is a response I sent to the one-sided article "Searching for Planet 9" published April 19, 2022, in Big Think by writer Tom Hartsfield along with a request that I or another writer be given the chance to write a response presenting the other side of this ongoing debate.

As you are likely well aware, the debate over planet definition and over Pluto's status remains ongoing. Just four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion of Pluto and related planet definition, and most were not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers. Their decision was immediately opposed by an equal number of planetary scientists in a formal petition led by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

Notably, the four percent of the IAU who voted on this misused the term "dwarf planet," which Stern coined back in 1991 to refer to a new subclass of planets by stating in their resolution that dwarf planets are not planets at all but another type of object entirely. Nine years later, this statement was not borne out by the findings of the Dawn mission at Ceres and the New Horizons mission at Pluto.

Since the 2015 New Horizons mission revealed Pluto to be a geologically active world with complex processes seen elsewhere in the solar system only on Earth and Mars, an increasing number of planetary scientists have come to view it as a full-fledged planet

At the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference in 2017, planetary scientist Kirby Runyon introduced the geophysical planet definition, which rejects the notion that an object has to clear its orbit to be a planet. Unlike the IAU definition, the geophysical definition focuses on objects' intrinsic properties rather than their location and deems any object that is not a star but is large enough and massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity a planet.

Because so many planetary scientists prefer the geophysical definition, they object to the term "Planet 9" for the hypothetical but as yet undiscovered planet in the outer solar system. Advocates of the geophysical definition count dwarf planets as full planets, so they view the solar system as already having a minimum of 13 planets and counting. In the August 5, 2018, edition of Planetary Exploration Newsletter, a publication of the Planetary Science Institute, a group of planetary scientists objected to the insensitive, one-sided use of the term "Planet 9," noting the IAU planet definition is "far from universally accepted."

Instead, they requested this hypothetical world be referred to by the standard term for a hypothetical but as yet undiscovered planet, which is "Planet X," with "X" referring to the unknown rather than to the number 10.
Hartsfield's article unfortunately begins with an extremely one-sided statement, "The former planet 9, Pluto, was knocked out of the club because it failed to meet the definition of a planet" without noting that that definition is just one of several currently in use and remains controversial to this day.

It then continues with the article's first sentences reading, "Our solar system once possessed nine planets. Then we kicked Pluto out of the club because it was just one of several little things beyond Neptune. Pluto happened to be the largest of them, putting it right on the line between planet and Kuiper Belt speck. The hunt is on for the real planet 9--if it exists."

This sentence contains multiple problems. There is no "we" that kicked Pluto out of the club. The sentence assumes a level of consent that never existed, especially among planetary scientists. It does not even acknowledge the fact that most planetary scientists reject the IAU definition and have done so for over 15 years.

Furthermore, Pluto is far from a "Kuiper Belt speck" or even an object between a planet and a speck. Such a statement totally ignores the New Horizons findings, which found Pluto to have planetary processes such as geology and weather, likely geological layering, floating glaciers, a layered atmosphere, interaction between its surface and atmosphere, varied terrains, windswept dunes, cryovolcanism, and a likely subsurface ocean. No Kuiper Belt "speck" has these features; such specks, like asteroids, are simply loosely held together by their chemical bonds.


Big Think's readers deserve a far more fair and balanced reporting of this issue, which acknowledges the ongoing debate and both positions instead of portraying one side as fact. There are many planetary scientists who would be happy to write about this for you, and I would be happy to get you in touch with them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Response to Matthew Rozsa's Salon Article, "Pluto Wasn't the First"



I sent the message below to several editors at Salon.com regarding an article by Matthew Rosza, published on April 17, 2022, titled, "Pluto Wasn't the First: A Brief History of the Solar System's Forgotten Planets" because the majority of this article is very one-sided in terms of the planet definition debate and therefore calls for a response.

I am writing to request you publish an article of mine responding to Matthew Rosza's April 16,2022, Explainer article, "Pluto Wasn't the First: A Brief History of the Solar System's Forgotten Planets." Although at its end, this article acknowledges that some scientists reject the controversial IAU demotion of Pluto, it is mostly very one-sided in its depiction of the planet debate and Pluto controversy, and unfortunately, there is no comments section on the site for people to respond.

Rosza neglects several important points, beginning with the fact that just four percent of the IAU voted to demote Pluto, and most were not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by an equal number of professional planetary scientists, yet the mainstream media never reported this fact.
Kindergartners in 2006 did not necessarily .learn a different number of solar system planets than those in 2005 did because many educators also opposed the controversial demotion of Pluto and continued to include Pluto when teaching the solar system.

The analogy to Ceres, made for the last 15 years, is also flawed. According to the geophysical planet definition, which most planetary scientists prefer, Ceres IS a planet because it is rounded by its own gravity, a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium. However, this was not known in the 19th century when it was demoted, because telescopes of the time could not resolve Ceres into a disk. Now they can, which is why it is clear the 19th century demotion was  in error. Vesta and Pallas are also not really asteroids; they are considered protoplanets because they appear to have once been spherical only to have had a portion lobbed off in an impact. This makes them very different from true asteroids, which are tiny, shapeless, and held together only by their own chemical bonds.

Additionally, Pluto may have a frozen surface, but data and images from the 2015 New Horizons flyby strongly suggest it has a subsurface liquid ocean (which Ceres may also have) and an internal heat source. This means both Pluto and Ceres are more akin to icy moons like Europa and Enceladus and could potentially support microbial life. While Pluto is often described as an ice world, it is actually 70 percent rock and likely geologically differentiated into core, mantle, and crust just like Earth is.
Saying astronomers once thought Pluto and Ceres should be planets but then "changed their minds" and that Pluto "lost its planet status" because "astronomers had decided there were three criteria for being considered a planet" is an incorrect over-generalization because these decisions were made by only a small number of professionals and largely by those in fields of astronomy other than planetary science. There was NEVER a consensus among planetary scientists on this. Furthermore, saying Pluto "lost its planet status" because of a vote inherently assumes science is done by decree of "authority," a very unscientific statement that essentially went out with Galileo.

Furthermore, the four percent of the IAU who voted on the 2006 resolution misused the term dwarf planet, which was coined by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in 1991. He coined this term to designate a new subclass of planets, not to designate a class of non-planets. In astronomy, dwarf stars are a subclass of stars, and dwarf galaxies are a subclass of galaxies. Claiming that dwarf planets are not planets at all makes no sense and runs counter to the findings of the Dawn and New Horizons missions, which found both Ceres and Pluto to have planetary processes similar to those of the terrestrial worlds.

As a science writer and blogger who has run a blog opposing the IAU decision for over 15 years and has written and spoken extensively on this topic, I respectfully request you allow me or someone else (ideally a planetary science) to write a response to this article clarifying these points and explaining that this issue has been and remains a subject of ongoing debate.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Discovery Anniversary: People still care very much about Pluto



Ninety-two years ago today, on February 18, 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto while blinking photographic plates of the night sky taken several nights apart at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the decades since then, Pluto’s discovery has become more appreciated and more celebrated than he could have imagined on that day.

Once again, the Lowell Observatory is celebrating the anniversary with a multi-day “I Heart Pluto” festival. This year’s is a hybrid event, with many online presentations as well as an in-person evening of entertainment and activities tonight at the Orpheum Theater and a historic walk tracing the steps Clyde Tombaugh took on that day following his discovery. Tombaugh actually spent that evening at the very same Orpheum Theater.

A source at the observatory informed me that tonight’s presentation will be recorded and placed online in the near future.

While more people than ever are coming to appreciate and celebrate this small, unique planet, something interesting is happening. Supporters of the IAU planet definition and of Pluto’s demotion constantly argue that few people care about Pluto’s planet status, that only a few “holdouts” refuse to accept the demotion.

Yet every time Pluto is in the news, this claim is proven to be blatantly false.

This week, Edward Gleason of the Southworth Planetarium in Portland, Maine, who supports Pluto’s planet status, addressed the debate over Pluto’s planet status in an email message sent to friends of the planetarium. The next day, he followed up with a post stating that he received multiple responses on this issue, “all of which were in equal measure thoughtful and passionate.”

He even quoted my response to his question, "The IAU General Assembly is convening its next meeting this August in Korea. Will Pluto's planetary status be then reinstated?" in which I noted that we don’t need the IAU for Pluto to be considered a planet.


I wrote: “Statements like this assume that only the IAU has the right to bestow planet status on an object. This is essentially an appeal to authority. The IAU planet definition should not in any way be privileged above other definitions currently in use, such as the geophysical definition. I have long suggested planetary scientists form their own organization and adopt their own definition of planet. We do not need the IAU to issue a decree or stamp of approval for Pluto to be considered a planet. Unfortunately, the media has portrayed the IAU decision as fact rather than as what it really is--one side in an ongoing debate.”

And he agreed, stating: “Indeed! That line does presuppose that the IAU stands as the final authority on all such matters.   We know that most planetary scientists have ignored the IAU's designation, a fact little mentioned by most media sources.  I stand cheerfully corrected.”

Gleason’s experience receiving so much feedback regarding Pluto is not unique. Planetary scientists and amateur astronomers who do public presentations and/or write articles on this subject are regularly asked about Pluto and its planet status. Fascination with this tiny, active world, and healthy skepticism about the IAU decision has only grown stronger over the last 15-and-a-half years.


When someone, whether a scientist, a writer, an amateur astronomer, or a member of the public claims that no one cares about Pluto’s status, what they are really saying is that they think no one should care. It usually means they support the IAU planet definition and its claim that dwarf planets are not planets and want to have the last word on the issue.

And their related statement, that Pluto doesn’t care what we call it, is irrelevant. The issue isn’t whether Pluto cares, but why we should care. As Philip Metzger notes, taxonomy is how we make sense of the world. It is integral to science. The IAU’s taxonomy is flawed because it lumps two very different types of objects—asteroids and comets on the one hand, and dwarf planets on the other—into the same category of non-planets.

Too often, one will read articles online that claim our solar system has just two types of planets—terrestrials and jovians—and/or cite the names of the four terrestrials and the four jovians, then add in the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt to describe the solar system.

But objects like Ceres and Pluto are far more than just small objects in belts, and they differ significantly from the majority of the tiny objects in those belts. Describing the solar system as having just rocky planets, gaseous planets, the asteroid belt, and the Kuiper Belt erases the existence of these small planets, which have more in common with rocky worlds like Earth and Mars than they do with KBOs like Arrokoth.

In a presentation on the glass plates which were used in Pluto’s discovery, one of Lowell Observatory’s speakers who knew Clyde Tombaugh reported that Tombaugh said he immediately recognized the tiny dot whose position moved against the background stars from one plate to another via the blink comparator. That tiny dot is part of a huge star field, and most people aren’t likely to find it even after hours of blinking the two plates.

Pluto was discovered in a unique way, by a very unique, intelligent, and skilled individual. The people of the world deserve to know about this amazing, very much alive little planet. Typically, the more they learn, the more their fascination grows.

In spite of the IAU’s decade-and-a-half false narrative, the people have spoken. And they continue to overwhelmingly recognize Pluto—and all dwarf planets--as a planet.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

I♥Pluto Festival 2022 | Imagining Pluto Before the Flyby

Lowell Observatory Hosts Annual "I Heart Pluto" Festival, February 12-21



Lowell Observatory's annual "I Heart Pluto" Festival, celebrating the 92nd anniversary of Pluto's discovery on February 18, 1930, at the observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, will this year be a combination of in-person and virtual events that will run from today, February 12 through Monday, February 21. You can find the entire schedule of events listed on the event's 
website. Speakers include Dr. Alan Stern; Dr. Cathy Olkin; Dr. Richard Binzel, former astronaut Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, Alden Tombaugh, son of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, and many more. Don't miss this annual celebration of our favorite planet!

Monday, January 31, 2022

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Icarus Paper Marks Turning Point for Pluto and for Geophysical Planet Definition

Depiction of all spherical worlds in the solar system with diameters under 10,000 kilometers. Credit: NASA /      JPL, JHUAPL/SwRI, SSI, The Planetary Society, and UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA, processed by Gordan Ugarkovic, Ted Stryk, Bjorn Jonsson, Roman Tkachenko, and Emily Lakdawalla

A peer-reviewed paper published in the March 2022 issue of the prestigious journal Icarus titled, Moons Are planets: Scientific usefulness versus cultural teleology in the taxonomy of planetary science” has reignited the planet definition debate in a way that indicates we may be experiencing a turning point when it comes to planet definition.

The paper’s authors are Philip Metzger, Will Grundy, Mark Sykes, Alan Stern, Jim Bell, Charlene Detelich, Kirby Runyon, and Michael Summers. These scientists conducted an extensive study of planet definition over 400 years (since the time of Galileo) and found that the geophysical planet definition is the one that has been used most since then and the one most consistent with the Copernican Revolution, in which the Sun, rather than the Earth, was recognized as the center of the solar system.

This paper is not centered on Pluto at all but focuses on spherical moons of planets, noting they were considered planets from the time of Galileo until the 19th century, when astrologers, folklorists, and almanac writers needed to keep the number of planets small and orderly to do horoscopes and make weather predictions.

When Galileo first turned his telescope on the Moon, he saw mountains that resembled those on Earth, from which he realized the Moon is also a planet with features similar to those on the Earth. Then, when he discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, he described them as “four planets circling the star of Jupiter.” This latter point is noted in David Weintraub’s 2007 book, Is Pluto a Planet?

For most of the last 400 years, planets were defined not by their orbital positions, which can and do change, but by their geophysical and geological processes. Spherical moons were classed as secondary or satellite planets, as they clearly have the same processes that primary planets do.

When the IAU adopted its 2006 definition, a strong motivation was keeping the number of solar system planets small, supposedly so children can memorize them. This need for a small number of planets in a neatly, ordered solar system, in which all orbit on the same plane, was an erroneous concept based on culture rather than science.

“This might seem like a small change, but it undermined the central idea about planets that had been passed down from Galileo. Planets were no longer defined by virtue of being complex, with active geology and the potential for life and civilization. Instead, they were defined by virtue of being simple, following certain idealized paths around the Sun,” noted study lead author Philip Metzger of the University of Central Florida (UCF).

As noted previously on many occasions, memorization of a list of planet names is an archaic method of teaching the solar system that dates back to before the space age, when little else was known about the planets other than their names. Today, memorization makes little sense and teaches nothing about the actual planets.

A better method of education involves teaching planet as a broad umbrella category and then focusing on the major characteristics of each planet subclass. Just like students have access to the entire Periodic Table available to them, they can be given complete lists of the solar system’s many planets for reference without having to memorize anything.

Numerous articles have been written in response to this paper, including mine in SpaceFlight Insider, which goes into more detail describing the Icarus paper. Others have been published by the University of Central FloridaWMFENBC NewsThe New York TimesAnton Petrov’s YouTube channelDr. Becky’s YouTube channelDeseret NewsThe A.V. Club, and many more.

Dr. Becky even admitted in her video that this paper is making her take a second look at the planet definition issue. Several commenters on various websites said the same thing.


In addition to changes of mind by people who formerly supported the IAU definition, there are now new books either out or scheduled to be published that take a pro-geophysical definition stand.

Welcome Back Pluto: We’re Glad that You’re a Planet Again by Ron Toms, published in October 2021, explores the weaknesses of the IAU planet definition and actually ends with a chapter titled, “How You Can Make Pluto a Planet Again.”

Of course, Pluto never stopped being a planet. A vote by 333 people does not have the power to change what Pluto is. This section should be worded, “How You Can Make Pluto Recognized as a Planet Again.” Nevertheless, this is very encouraging, and I urge all interested in this subject to purchase this book. I intend to do so myself and to review it on this blog.

In his book, Toms states what many of us have been repeating for more than 15 years: “Don’t fall victim to the logical fallacy known as appeal to authority. The IAU’s definition of planet does not pass scrutiny in spite of their self-proclaimed authority. Anyone can do this. The emperor has no clothes.”

Toms goes on to take issue with the claim that the IAU definition is somehow the “official” one, pointing out that anyone can create a definition and call it “official.”

Within a Facebook discussion of the planet definition controversy, one writer announced plans to write a children’s book about the Kuiper Belt from the standpoint of the geophysical planet definition. I will present more information about this project as it becomes available.


This is an amazing turn of events, and we have the authors of the Icarus article, who spent five years going over four centuries of planetary science literature, to thank for it.

New York Times science writer Ken Chang embedded a poll in his article asking people questions not just about Pluto but also whether Eris and Earth’s Moon should be considered planets. Unfortunately, too few people are familiar with Eris, and too many Pluto supporters advocate only the nine-planet solar system. But even this does not work in favor of the IAU or its problematic definition. A major reason few people learned about Eris and about the geophysical definition is that the IAU vote was centered completely on Pluto. The media story was their removal of Pluto, not the discovery of additional planets in our solar system. So kids are actually learning less about the solar system now than they did prior to the IAU vote, unless their teachers choose to teach a more inclusive view of the solar system.

The poll is therefore not an indictment of Pluto supporters but of the mainstream media, textbook publishers, and educational systems that blindly adopted the IAU position back in 2006 rather than question it, learn the entire story behind it, and teach the controversy.

Back in the 1600s, church leaders refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, which would have enabled them to learn that his discoveries were real and correct. Today, it seems we’re stuck with another so-called “authority” that refuses to look at the latest data on everything from missions to dwarf planets to history to the discovery of exoplanets, all so they can stick to their dogma. If history has anything to say about this, the latter view will not prevail.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Please vote for geophysical planet definition in New York Times Poll

 I will be writing more later about the planet definition debate heating up again, thanks to a paper published in the journal Icarus explaining why the IAU planet definition is based on astrology and folklore. For now, New York Times Science writer Ken Chang is holding an active poll in an article he wrote today, not just about Pluto's planet status but on the geophysical planet definition. Too many people have responded in favor of just a nine-planet solar system as opposed to one based on the geophysical defintiion, in which Eris, all dwarf planets, and spherical moons are counted as planets. Please visit the article and answer all the questions in support of the geophysical definition. This is not just about Pluto!


Here is the link: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/science/is-pluto-a-planet.html?smid=tw-share